Jim Knowles hasn’t been bashful in his praise for Ronnie Hickman this spring.
If the glowing reviews he’s espoused about the fourth-year safety are to be taken at face value, it would be safe to surmise Hickman is at or near the top of the list of Buckeyes who have made a distinctly positive impression on Knowles during his first few months as Ohio State’s defensive coordinator.
“I just think (Hickman)’s a heads up guy, I think he’s a football player, he understands defense, he communicates, he’s got a great personality,” Knowles said on March 8 after Ohio State’s first practice of the spring. “He’s everything I want in a safety, so I definitely want him on the field.”
As the Buckeyes’ spring camp nears its apex, it’s become clear Knowles doesn’t just want Hickman on the field, but pulling the strings as the proverbial quarterback of the secondary in a role he hasn’t often operated in before – the free safety spot.
“I love Ronnie Hickman. I think he's got the skill. I think he's got the savvy. I just think he's a great piece in the middle there to run the show back there,” Knowles said. “I just like the way he plays and handles his business.”
Starting with a standout spring at this time a year ago, Hickman ascended the depth chart to become a first-year starter in scarlet and gray in 2021, becoming a fixture on the field at the oft-discussed but previously underutilized bullet position. Hickman rose from relative obscurity on the Buckeye roster to finish the year with the second-most snaps played of any Ohio State defender, and the New Jersey native recorded 36 more tackles than any other player on the team.
Of course, the Buckeyes’ defense didn’t always mirror the success of Hickman, as Ohio State’s pass defense ranked 96th-best in the country and finished No. 59 in total yards allowed. Those marks contributed to near-wholesale changes on the defensive staff change this offseason, and Hickman hasn’t pretended like the modifications on the field and in the meeting room aren’t drastic.
“It's definitely a different style. Coach Knowles is a completely different guy than Coach (Matt) Barnes,” Hickman said last week. “Each coach has their different styles of teaching. But the coaches we have right now, they're doing a great job of teaching us the stuff, getting us information, showing us looks and stuff like that. So we're just all taking it in, just trying to get better each day.
Some level of trepidation about the implementation of a new, complex scheme is only natural, even for a player that appeared to lock down a feature role on the Buckeye defense with his level of play last season.
“Honestly, I would say in the beginning, you definitely have those, I wouldn't say concerns or worries, but you know, you're a little nervous, you got some questions about it,” Hickman said. “But you've got, what was this practice 11 (on Friday), I believe? So things are under our belt now, we still got a lot of room to improve on, but we've made some really great strides. So I'm feeling good about where we're at.”
Individually, the biggest change for Hickman in particular is adjusting to his new position, in which he is leading Ohio State’s defensive backs as the “adjuster” in Knowles’ new-look system.
Year-by-year changes aren’t new for Hickman, who has now been around for three different defensive coordinators and four different secondary coaches during his Buckeye career, but the latest one may see him take on more responsibility than ever before in Ohio State’s defensive backfield.
“It's been a lot of new coverages each year. I'm pretty sure it's been like a little change to the defense, at least a small amount. But this year, I'm playing where I'm playing at and I'm liking it. I'm excited for what I can do to the team and as long as I can contribute, I'm good,” Hickman said. “That's my main goal is to help this team win and do what I can.”
Hickman said the move might actually be more in line with what he imagined his role would be for the Buckeyes coming out of high school, when he was the No. 115-ranked prospect in the class of 2019 out of DePaul Catholic in Wayne, New Jersey.
“Being able to read the read the quarterback, make plays on the ball and then fill the alley when I need to, to covering space, whether it's covering tight ends and stuff like that. All those things I feel like a safety needs to be able to do, and I feel like I'm equipped for that,” Hickman said.
But with Hickman repping at free safety, Kourt Williams taking first-team reps at the boundary safety spot (prior to recent injury issues) and Tanner McCalister appearing to be a sure-fire starter at nickel, the question remains what that means for Josh Proctor, who started at free safety last season before missing all but two games with a leg fracture suffered against Oregon.
Hickman won’t tip his hand if he does have insight on the matter, but it’s clear there could be some positional movement before things are set in stone come fall.
“I can't answer those questions, it's only spring ball right now,” Hickman said. “I see what you're trying to get at, but I can't answer that right now. … The safeties are kind of interchangeable as far as the bandit and adjuster, we do kind of a lot of similar things. I'm on the field and he's to the boundary, but being an athlete and stuff like that, it's just new techniques you got to learn, but it's nothing too much to handle.”
As things stand, though, it would seem it will be hard to supplant Hickman at free safety, unless injuries at other positions necessitate he play a different role in the secondary.
Regardless of where he’s at on the field, Hickman said he feels plenty comfortable at this stage in his career, and that a slight change in position isn’t likely to faze him much in 2022.
“The safety position definitely has to make a lot of calls, you got to be vocal, you kind of got to be that quarterback on the defense. So as far as that, not much has really changed, I'm still communicating the same way with my guys as much as possible,” Hickman said. “So I think that's kind of just like that safety kind of mentality you got to have.”